An Epic Mystery Unsolved, A Planet Spinning Wildly

The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny , by Scott Anderson. Doubleday, 374 pages, $24.95.

One can readily imagine that the frustrated, overwhelmed fleet of relief agencies struggling to manage the exodus of refugees from Kosovo dearly misses an old friend, Fred Cuny, and his swashbuckling expertise. An intrepid 50-year-old Texan, universally hailed as the “Master of Disaster” and the “Red Adair of humanitarian relief,” Mr. Cuny vanished into the war-rocked highlands of Chechnya in the spring of 1995. On the other hand, perhaps his absence has engendered only ambivalence, because things have gotten far too complicated in the do-gooder business these days, in no small part thanks to Mr. Cuny.

Fred Cuny was one of the world’s most accomplished disaster relief experts, “both a pioneer and an iconoclast in the field of international humanitarian aid,” writes Scott Anderson, author of The Man Who Tried to Save the World , in my estimation one of the most important books to be published since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let me, if possible, be more emphatic about Mr. Anderson’s achievement. For Americans, the time has arrived to wise up about our clumsy guardianship of the world, and the ever more complex and precarious conflicts we seem to be signing on to for the years ahead. Here at the end of the American century, we cannot afford the next one to be the end of Pax Americana, as tattered as it is, and indifference to foreign policy issues during an age of globalization strikes me as a terminal form of decadence. The effect of Mr. Anderson’s book is to counteract indifference.

Back to Fred Cuny. As a freelance consultant in the 70’s and 80’s, obsessed by the desire to bring order out of chaos, Mr. Cuny “battle[d] the catastrophes wrought by both nature and man–earthquakes in Guatemala, cyclones in Madagascar, wars on four continents.” Dashing from one vast emergency to the next–Biafra, Bangladesh, Cambodia–Mr. Cuny quickly recognized that international disaster relief was itself a disaster: a haphazard orchestra of tone-deaf politicians, sluggish bureaucrats, corrupt local governments, and incompetent volunteers producing a symphonic dissonance of altruism. Mr. Cuny bucked the system and quarreled with everybody, even spatting with Mother Teresa. Despite his remarkable accomplishments, Mr. Anderson observes, the heroic cowboy with a renegade streak seemed destined to remain at the fringe of his profession unless the world itself changed. And then, when the Soviet Union imploded in the early 90’s, it did.

“In 1991 he virtually took over a U.S. military operation in northern Iraq to resettle some 400,000 refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s troops. The next year he produced a blueprint–the Cuny Plan–for the Marines’ massive relief operation in starvation-wracked Somalia. In 1993 he embarked on a series of fantastically ambitious projects in the besieged city of Sarajevo.… And increasingly, Fred had come to be regarded as he had always wished to he: as a valuable asset, a man to be consulted and listened to at the highest echelons of both the humanitarian aid establishment and the American Government.”

But Fred Cuny and big bold initiatives “represented an alarming new trend in the wake of the Cold War: the blurring of the once clear lines that had existed between what was governmental and what was private; the murky convergence of humanitarian relief, diplomacy, intelligence, and military operations; the difficulty in distinguishing between those who were there doing ‘mercy work’ and those there for a more complicated and dangerous purpose.” Colleagues whose one god was the appearance of neutrality were increasingly resentful, alarmed by Mr. Cuny’s vocal partisanship in war zones around the world and his cozy relationship with the American military. When the disaster relief fraternity began to fret about his perceived connection with the intelligence community, Mr. Cuny, amused, did little to discourage the speculation.

Thus begins a great, epic mystery of our day.

If ever there was an Olympian challenge for Fred Cuny, it was Chechnya, the breakaway republic that Russia fought so savagely to retain. Mr. Cuny, who liked to convert chaos into opportunity, who yearned for the chance to alter fundamentally the course of geopolitical events, considered Chechnya the ultimate frontier, but “even for an eyewitness to some thirty conflicts over the previous quarter century, Fred had never seen a war to match the brutality or terrifying unpredictability of Chechnya.” It was, he told friends and co-workers, the scariest place he had ever been, a thousand times worse than Sarajevo.

The Russian army was out of control, the landscape populated by freelancing bands of gunmen fighting and cutting deals with both sides, and the Chechen rebels had grown murderously distrustful of foreigners, whom they believed were Russian spies masquerading as journalists, medics and relief workers. At the end of March, 1995, Mr. Cuny, at the behest of billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, arrived in Chechnya for a second time to conduct a needs-assessment tour of the war zone. The conflict was only 14 weeks old but already tens of thousands were dead, towns and cities leveled by insane bombardments. Mr. Cuny, with safe conduct passes, had gone into the mountains toward the rebel stronghold of Bamut with a female interpreter, two Russian Red Cross doctors, and an ambulance laden with medical supplies. Despite the fact that Mr. Cuny was well known and well liked by senior rebel commanders, within days all four aid workers had disappeared off the map.

“Through that spring and summer of 1995,” writes Mr. Anderson, “the story of those lost in Chechnya would move governments and attract worldwide media attention. The case would draw the personal involvement of at least four heads of state, including the presidents of the United States and Russia.” The search would be confounded by false sightings, extortion attempts, disinformation campaigns and a pattern of violent death among those with firsthand knowledge of the missing four.

In the end, the same two mysteries would remain: What had happened to Mr. Cuny and his entourage in the mountains of Chechnya, and who was the real Fred Cuny, anyway? For Mr. Anderson, dispatched to Chechnya by The New York Times Magazine to get to the bottom of these intrigues, the assignment would turn into a three-year odyssey, and this riveting, meticulously investigated account.

The Man Who Tried to Save the World delivers a strong, clear, comprehensive sense of how the planet is spinning seriously out of kilter of late, and signals more of the same down the road. Outlaw states, failed states, lost states; self-murdering states, leaderless states, thugocracies galore–you name the collective psychosis and somewhere on the globe it is raging through a formerly stable society. To make matters worse, Mr. Anderson reminds us, “the traditional inhabitants of a battlefield–soldiers, or journalists like myself–today represent only a tiny minority, their numbers overwhelmed by the purely innocent. A few simple statistics chart this regression. In the American Civil War, civilian casualties were so low that no one even bothered to count them. From 1900 to 1950, civilians constituted roughly 40 percent of all war-related casualties. By the 1960’s, that percentage had risen to 63, and by the 1980’s, to 74. For every ‘conventional war,’ such as Desert Storm, that pushes the percentage down a fraction, there is a Bosnia or Rwanda that sends it ever upward.”

Today’s “hallowed ground” is “a ditch or a filthy alley or a cluster of burned homes,” writes Mr. Anderson, “and it is inordinately populated by the elderly, by mothers and their children, by those not quick enough to escape.” These were the people to whom Fred Cuny, at great personal risk, devoted his life; these were the people he came to save.

Only Scott Anderson, who burned himself out as a correspondent in more war zones than he cares to count, could have written this book, could have brought such brilliant insight and scope to the life of Fred Cuny, and to our own perplexing crusade as superpower and super nice guy. His book deserves blue ribbons, and a million readers.

If I were sitting, with the power of decree, in the White House, you wouldn’t be eligible for a college degree until you’d read this book.